All My Life’s a Circle: Respect Across the Lifespan

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“We are once an adult, and twice a child.”

I’ve been away.

As ever, I have a lot of blog posts in the works, halfway or quarter-way written, a few with just a title and a sentence or two reminding me what I was going to write about so I can come back to it when I have time and brainpower.   I mean to post at least once a week, more if I can, and I haven’t been doing too badly in that regard.  This time it has been a little bit longer.  Almost two weeks.  So much to write.  So much to say.  But tonight, instead of finishing one of the umpteen posts that I have started or that I have promised to readers, I am writing what needs to be written.

If you are a reader who follow my blog because I write about child development, you may be confused at first.  I respectfully ask you to stick with it.  You’ll see.  I promise.

For most of the time since my last post, I have been on the opposite coast of the United States from where I live, visiting my mother, who was ninety-five years old last month.  She has outlived 7 of her nine siblings, all of whom lived very long lives; only she and her “baby brother” remain.   My mother has always been a brilliant woman, full of life, full of energy, tough as nails. She taught me everything I know about research (“look it up!”), critical thinking (“Well, I don’t know about that…”), and dogged persistence (“…so she buckled right in with a bit of a grin on her face, if she worried, she hid it–she started to sing as she tackled the thing that couldn’t be done and she did it”).  At 86, she bounced a basketball in her kitchen with my then 6 year old daughter, passing the ball quickly back and forth under one raised leg and then another, singing a jump rope/bouncing rhyme:

“One, two, three. O’Lary, My first name is Mary, Don’t you think that I look cute, In my father’s bathing suit”

A few years ago now, my mother, who was living alone, had a fall.  Amazingly enough, she had no broken bones or any real physical injuries (see “tough as nails” above) but she was on the floor for quite a while, and as a result, she developed rhabdomyolysis, something I knew nothing about, but which (of course) I researched (see “look it up!” above.) Without going into all the gory details (look it up!), I will just say that it can result in brain swelling.  She did recover, but she has not been quite the same since the fall.  And as the years have passed, bringing with them many of the typical ravages of old age that may have occurred even without that “blip”, her confusion has grown.  It is neither unusual, nor unexpected.  At present, she has good days and bad days, good hours and bad hours.  She does not consistently know who I am or who my daughter is, and yet she does know us.  It is both intensely painful and an immense privilege to spend a full week with her at this stage in her life.

Oh.  There’s one other thing I learned from my mother.  Stoicism.  It’s a double-edged sword, to be sure.  A therapist once told me that she considered it my “diagnosis”:  “You suffer from severe stoicism,” she said.  Yeah.  I do.  I come by it honestly.  I mention this only because my mother has not only never asked for or admitted that she needed assistance, but overtly has rejected all assistance, even when it might be helpful. “I’ll do it myself.  I can do that.”  She has never been helpless.  Yeah.  That’s me all over.  So, as you might imagine, these years in which she can do very little for herself (she must have a caregiver 24/7) are perhaps more deeply startling than they might be for others.

That must be so hard,” my wonderful friends said to me during my visit.  Yes, it was.  And no, it wasn’t.

Here’s the thing, friends.  I spend most of my life deeply immersed in philosophies and methods of respectful caregiving of young children.  My days are filled with teaching, modeling, coaching, observing, writing, thinking, marveling, speaking.  There is little to nothing that I am as intensely passionate about as the importance of treating infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with respect. When combined with being an extreme empath, it can be pretty deadly stuff.

My friends know not to forward me those “why my child is crying” memes that everyone gets such a chuckle out of, because the idea that people would mock the pain of young children for their own entertainment–or even for their own much deserved stress relief as parents–creates great distress for me.  The chorus of “all those kids need is a good whack” and public shaming of children that still exist and are lauded in the greater parenting community nearly do me in. Watching adults forcefully shoving screaming children’s arms into jackets.  Observing adults suddenly picking up children from behind in the middle of their play, without warning.  Professionals urging parents to let a child scream a terror-filled scream for three hours at bedtime in the name of “sleep training.” (I am not against all sleep training, just so you know.) You think being with my 95-year-old mother with dementia is hard?  Put me in a grocery line behind a crying toddler and a parent speaking quietly but viciously through clenched teeth..now THAT’S hard (and a whole lot more frequent.)

I’m a nut for this stuff.  You get the idea.

But because I work with children, people at the beginning of their lives, and spend relatively so little time with people at the end of their lives, I’ve never really given too much thought about how remarkably similar the experiences of both the person (the child or the elder) and the caregiver are.  I’ve heard people say it, and I “get it.”  But I didn’t really get it. Not until this week.

I spend a lot of time coaching parents on how to respond respectfully and empathically to toddler tantrums.  I have never really considered what those tantrums would look and sound like if they were nearly identical, but the toddler had all the words to describe what was going on inside their overloaded brains.   As parents, the best we can do is guess.  A two-year old is screaming, shouting, flailing their arms and hands and legs and feet in our direction, throwing toys, pounding on the floor.  If we’re “lucky” (the quotes are important here), they are saying a few words that clue us in–but usually, they aren’t.  They’re beyond words.  We imagine what they are saying, we “translate”:

This is too much for me.  I’m too tired.  I’m too scared.  It’s not fair.  I don’t like that.  No one is listening to me.  I’m  mad mad mad mad mad.  I’m hungry.  I don’t know what I am.  I’m exploding.  I’m taken over by my senses, my emotions.  It’s all too much, too loud, too bright, too many expectations.  I can’t do it. I’m overloaded.  I’m worn out.  I can’t do this.

Yes.  All of those things.  What i learned this last week is what it sounds like when someone does have words.

I don’t know what I’m doing.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.  No one is listening to me.  I can’t. I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do that. Don’t do that.  I don’t want that. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.  I have to…I have to….I have to….I don’t know what I’m doing.  I’m all mixed up.

You tell me.  What’s the difference?

I’ll tell you.  Nothing.

Except maybe, just maybe, it’s a bit more painful to hear the literal words, to not be able to fool ourselves into our own translations, in which we can pretend that this is just an “overwhelming moment” or (god forbid) a “behavior problem”, rather than a brain–the control center of the entire body–that is whirling out of control.   As I watched my mother in her whirl, I felt I was looking through a window at every 9 month old that has arched their back away from their parent, screaming, squirming, face twisted up, bright red.  I don’t know what I’m doing.  No one is listening to me.  I can’t do that.  I’m all mixed up.

I watched as a cherished and trusted aide removed my mother’s cardigan sweatshirt. I watched and heard my mother screaming and swatting and grimacing and saying “NO!  That’s not the way you do it!  You’re hurting me!”  I thought of how I coach parents to interact with a three-year old whose jacket needs to be removed amid objection.  I “switched into RIE”, though I wasn’t in charge.

“The sun is coming in the window. You’re hot.” (sportscasting).

“I need to take your jacket off so that your body will be more comfortable.  Would you like me to do that now, or shall I do it in a couple of minutes?”  (advance notice, choices)

“I’m going to take your jacket off now.  Would you like to help me or would you like me to take it off?”  (limit setting, choices)

“I’m going to take this arm off first.  Can you help me?  I’m going to lift your arm up a little so that I can take off this one sleeve.” (active involvement, description)

“I’m taking it off too fast for you.  I’ll wait.  Let me know when you’re ready.”  (sportscasting, waiting, involvement)

“It’s upsetting when I take your jacket off.” (sportscasting)

“You feel like you can’t do it, like you can’t get your jacket off while sitting in the chair.  We can do this together, we’ll go slowly if you want.  I’m moving the jacket around your back and then we’ll take the other arm off so that your body will feel cooler.  I know it’s upsetting.”  (acknowledgement, involvement)

It happened again when it was time to move to a wheelchair to go outside–lifting her feet on to the footrests nearly resulted in a kick to the head (“DON’T TOUCH ME!”.)  It happened again in the wheelchair on the sidewalk; a panicked, hysterical “I’m going to fall off the edge!!”  I heard myself say “No. You’re not.”  And then I remembered, and said “You’re close to the edge.  I will make sure you’re safe.  I am making sure the wheels don’t go near the edge.”  The second one worked a lot better than the first one.  Um, right.  I knew that.

It happened again when she tried to explain something that she wanted, without the benefit of having nouns (toddlers must feel just this way, no?).   “I need the blue, I need the piece for everyone, I put it in the place, NO, that’s not it, WHY ISN’T ANYONE LISTENING TO ME?” 

It happened when I found myself outraged (and enraged) when anyone laughed at something my mother did (when she was not intending to be funny), when anyone talked over her or spoke about her in the third person while she was sitting right there, when anyone dismissed her fears or upset or told her “it’s okay” when it clearly was not okay with her.  It happened when I cringed and wanted to run away every time another person treated her as if she was not fully deserving of complete respect, attention, and compassion.  In short, exactly how I feel when people treat children in any of those ways.

It happened again when I came up behind her as she lay awake in bed, to say goodnight for the evening–it was a full minute of my stroking her head before she turned around and noticed me there, asking “Who is that?”  I was behind her.  I know better than that.

I felt the panic and anxiety–and yes, even the growing frustration–rising in me, as, on one of the “bad days”, she simply repeated “I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m so mixed up, I’m all mixed up, i don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing”, with varying levels of volume and distress (sometimes just factual, sometimes panicked, sometimes crying, sometimes LOUD, sometimes resigned, always distressed) without interruption for hours on end.  For those of you who have had a toddler or preschooler ask you the same question or repeat the same sentence or demand over and over again for a half hour at a time–or sometimes even throughout an entire day–you’ll recognize the feeling that starts in your muscles and that makes you want to distract, to turn on the television, that makes you want to tear at your hair and yell “I heard you!  You don’t need to keep saying it!!” at the top of your lungs, your face distorted by anger and frustration.  Yeah.  It’s like that.  Times ten.

But I didn’t do that (the hair-tearing and yelling thing.)  I felt it, but I didn’t do it.  Those of you who join me in this radical adventure of respectful parenting of young children, you know how it is.  You know about the moments–precious that they are–when you can actually harness what you know about development, and remember that your own triggers are not your child’s fault, that they’re not doing this with any intent to annoy, and that respectful, calm, connected interactions always pay off.  You know about those moments when you remember the value of self-care–walking out, taking a deep breath, getting yourself a glass of water, taking a break for a few minutes.  You know about those successes.  None of us have those successes every day, every time.  But we all have them sometimes, and as we practice and learn and read and study and talk with others and get support, we have more and more of them.  We get them from RIE®, we get them from Hand in Hand Parenting, we get them from Aha Parenting, we get them from Dan Siegel, we get them from Larry Cohen, we get them from our mentors, our friends, our neighbors, our teachers.  Maybe you even get some of them here.

I’m here to tell you that these things that we’re doing as we learn about and practice respectful parenting of infants and toddlers and preschoolers, the things that we are doing as we learn how to deal with challenging behaviors, tantrums in grocery stores, and toddlers squirming away, running naked and poopy from a half-completed diaper change…these things are bigger than today, bigger than our toddlers, and bigger than getting through the day as a parent.  They are skills, but more than skills, they are gifts.  There will never be a place or a time when having fostered this mindset, built this skillset (because it is a skillset) and developed these capabilities will not pay off.

We will all be there one day, where I am now.  We will all have a parent, a grandparent, a dear friend who needs and deserves our help…and if not our help, then our deep respect and compassion.  We know it, we say it every day–they deserve dignity.  Deeply respectful caregiving–as a practice–is hard to learn to do consistently with young children–it does not come naturally to most of us.  It is harder yet to do with our parents. It’s worth it.

I am certain that there are family members and professionals who live and work with the elderly, especially those with dementia, who have amazing and brilliant and respectful skills, who are infinitely patient and who have conversations like this with their charges every day.  I do not claim to have discovered anything original, and I most certainly do not claim to be better at this in any way, shape, or form, than any of the incredible people who do this work every day.  I am not sure that I have ever seen a caregiver for the elderly utilize the type of detailed strategies that are taught through RIE® and other respect-based philosophies.  Perhaps it is time to adapt those teachings for use with that population.  Or maybe not.  Maybe it’s already happening–maybe there are people who sportscast and wait and acknowledge and empathize and listen reflectively and actively involve (no matter how competent the elder) and lovingly and respectfully set limits where necessary–and i just don’t know about it because I don’t live and work in those communities.  I certainly hope that that’s true.  I’m not saying that it isn’t.  I am simply saying that I thought I didn’t know this work, this role, because I’ve never done it.  And then I found out that I do.  Because I have.

All my life’s a circle, sunrise and sundown
The moon rolls through the nighttime, till the daybreak comes around
All my life’s a circle but I can’t tell you why,
Seasons spinning round again, the years keep rollin by …,

It seems like I’ve been here before,  I can’t remember when,
And I got this funny feeling, That we’d be together again,
There’s no straight lines make up my life, And all the roads have bends.
There’s no clear cut beginnings, And so far no Dead Ends.

I found you a thousand times, I guess you’ve done the same,
But then we lose each other, It’s just like a children’s game,
As I find you here again, The thought runs through my mind,
Our Love is like a circle,  Let’s go round one more time.

All my life’s a circle, Sunrise and sundown,
The moon rolls through the nighttime, Til the day break comes around,
All my life’s a circle but I can’t tell you why,
Seasons spinning round again the years keep rollin’ by …

Harry Chapin


(One Final Note:  Unending gratitude to my RIE community on Facebook, who also recognized these parallels and encouraged me to write this.  Your support is and was invaluable.)

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6 thoughts on “All My Life’s a Circle: Respect Across the Lifespan

  1. It is so hard to compare childhood and dementia without sounding demeaning, but you can’t deny the similarities. I have young children and work with elderly people. Dementia is so much harder – with a child you teach them to say tie their shoelaces, over and over, and eventually they get it. With dementia you know it will only get worse, they are never going to relearn these lost skills, no matter how often you show them. It is hard work!

    • When we compare them, i always wonder…are we demeaning the children by comparing them to the elders? Or are we demeaning the elders by comparing them to the children? I wonder why it should be demeaning to be compared to a child OR an elder–they are both valid and wonderful stages of life, and the people that occupy them are complete people, regardless of age or capacities…yes?

      I guess that’s what I found interesting, and what moved me to write this piece. I understand when people feel that dementia is harder–and in some ways, i guess it is–but my experience is that I didn’t really find it harder…I found it remarkably similar.

      Maybe it comes from a deep belief in and committed practice of being in the present moment with young children. See, that’s just it, what you said. I actually *don’t* believe in teaching children to tie their shoelaces over and over again, looking forward to the day they will get it. I trust that when they are ready, if they need that skill, they will figure it out. That day is not today, and that’s just fine with me. Similarly, I found that I wasn’t concerned with what my mother will be less able to do in a month or a year, and I did not dwell excessively on how each day differed from the last (i.e. “she could do that yesterday”, or “she’s so much worse than last time I was here”). I just mostly thought “This is who she is today.” It’s a different lens, to be sure…a lens that is often only known to those who focus on these philosophies of parenting…that’s why it felt important to write this post and draw those parallels.

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